Screen Gems Imi­ta­tion of Life

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Jonathan Richards

Imi­ta­tion of Life, clas­sic drama, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles In 1959, the Amer­i­can civil rights move­ment was just be­gin­ning to stir. It had been a scant five years since the Supreme Court’s land­mark school de­seg­re­ga­tion de­ci­sion in Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion. It had been just four years since Rosa Parks re­fused to sur­ren­der her seat on an Alabama bus to a white man, trig­ger­ing the Mont­gomery bus boy­cott and bring­ing to na­tional at­ten­tion a Bap­tist min­is­ter named Martin Luther King Jr. The coun­try was still years away from the Free­dom Rides of the ’60s, the great civil rights marches, and the civil rights acts.

If civil rights was still only a faint ru­mor on the edges of the con­scious­ness of most white Amer­i­cans, the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio/star sys­tem was still mak­ing magic. And into this con­flu­ence of real life and wish­ful think­ing stepped film­maker Dou­glas Sirk with a lav­ish re­make of Imi­ta­tion of Life, the 1934 racethemed tear­jerker adapted from a best­selling novel by Fan­nie Hurst. Sirk was a Ger­man ex­pa­tri­ate known for lush, over-the-top Hol­ly­wood melo­dra­mas, in­clud­ing Mag­nif­i­cent Ob­ses­sion (1954), All That Heaven Al­lows

(1955), and Writ­ten on the Wind (1956). Imi­ta­tion of Life stars Lana Turner as Lora Mered­ith, a young widow, mother, and strug­gling actress. (In the ear­lier ver­sion, Claudette Col­bert played her as an as­pir­ing pan­cake en­tre­pre­neur.) The story be­gins in 1947, at a New York beach, where Lora meets an­other sin­gle mother, An­nie John­son (the won­der­ful Juanita Moore, who died last year). The two women bond over their daugh­ters, six-year-old Susie (who will grow up to be played by San­dra Dee) and eight-year-old Sarah Jane (who has the bet­ter luck to emerge as Su­san Kohner).

Lora doesn’t have much, but she does have an apart­ment, and she is white — two things that give her a big ad­van­tage over An­nie, who comes to work for her. And soon the breaks start to turn for Lora. She gets a mod­el­ing job sprin­kling flea pow­der on a dog and a the­atri­cal agent, Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), who wants to get into her pants. Need­less to say, she turns him down with eyes flash­ing ice; but in a bit of serendip­ity that may be the movie’s most won­der­fully far­fetched (and hi­lar­i­ous) mo­ment, Loomis is with David Ed­wards (Dan O’Her­lihy) when the prizewin­ning play­wright sees the flea-pow­der ad in a mag­a­zine and de­cides this is the woman he needs for his new play.

She’s on her way. But there are bod­ies to be climbed over. They in­clude sin­cere, hand­some pho­tog­ra­pher-ad­man Steve Archer (the ab­surdly hand­some John Gavin), who wants to marry her; Susie, who finds her­self play­ing a bit role in her mother’s ac­cel­er­at­ing ca­reer; and the tor­tured Sarah Jane, who can pass for white (“She fa­vors her fa­ther,” An­nie says) and is determined to do so.

The true no­bil­ity in this story is in Moore’s per­for­mance (she and Kohner were Os­car-nom­i­nated for best sup­port­ing actress). An­nie serves and sup­ports and en­dures end­less slights and racist in­dig­ni­ties with saintly pa­tience. She loves her white folks, knows her place, dreams of a lav­ish fu­neral as her penul­ti­mate re­ward, and wants only to love and find the best for Sarah Jane, who is mor­ti­fied by her mother’s black­ness and is des­per­ate to dis­tance her­self from it.

Imi­ta­tion of Life was Sirk’s last fea­ture and one of his most suc­cess­ful. Au­di­ences loved his movies. Crit­ics were less moved. Bosley Crowther in The New York

Times sniped that the ac­tors “do not give an imi­ta­tion of life. They give an imi­ta­tion of movie act­ing.” But the French, who would soon dis­cover Jerry Lewis, were more re­cep­tive. Jean-Luc Go­dard en­thused that Sirk’s work “set my cheeks afire.” And as the years have gone by, the crit­i­cal pen­du­lum has swung firmly into the cor­ner of this man who fled Hitler’s Ger­many in 1937 with his Jewish wife to es­cape Nazi per­se­cu­tion.

There are two lines of clear and rigid de­mar­ca­tion put for­ward in this pic­ture. The first, of course, is the color line. Sirk han­dles with finely smol­der­ing in­dig­na­tion the dis­crim­i­na­tion and dis­re­spect An­nie must en­dure, the un­justly stacked deck that drives Sarah Jane to re­ject her mother and seek a bet­ter chance in life as a white girl. It’s abun­dantly ap­par­ent in the out­side world, but it’s also clear in their do­mes­tic life, where Lora treats them with love and com­pas­sion but also with a clear sense of class dif­fer­ence; the house­keeper is al­ways “An­nie,” but the boss lady is al­ways “Miss Lora.”

The other line in the so­ci­o­log­i­cal sand is drawn at a woman’s ei­ther-or choice be­tween mar­riage and ca­reer. Steve is propos­ing when Lora gets the phone call that brings her first break. He ex­pects her to turn it down and be­come Mrs. Archer. She re­fuses and re­jects him and be­gins her climb to celebrity; only later, when she has tasted the cham­pagne and caviar and found it stale, does she re­al­ize how wrong she’s been. More than half a cen­tury has passed since Imi­ta­tion of Life laid down its chal­lenges to con­tem­po­rary at­ti­tudes to­ward racism and sex­ism. Sirk’s style has ac­quired a patina of clas­si­cism in the in­ter­ven­ing years. You may snicker at the end­less suc­ces­sion of designer clothes and designer in­te­ri­ors, the hair­dos that greet the morn­ing with in­domitable per­fec­tion, and some of the equally styled-and-lac­quered dia­logue, but there is a throb­bing sin­cer­ity and a daz­zling artistry at work here. As Time noted back then, “It may force theatre own­ers to in­stall aisle scup­pers to drain off the tears.” You are ad­vised to bring Kleenex.

Karin Dicker, Juanita Moore, Terry Burn­ham, and Lana Turner

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